Blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, is your body’s main source of energy. A hormone called insulin, produced by the pancreas, helps regulate your body’s glucose levels. If your pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels from getting too high, you can develop diabetes.
There is no cure for diabetes, but it can be managed through medication and lifestyle, including diet.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 34 million people in the United States have diabetes. Another 88 million have prediabetes, meaning they are at high risk of developing diabetes within 10 years. Many people may not even know they are at risk, as prediabetes or early diabetes often have no symptoms.
Once blood sugar levels increase enough, diabetes symptoms can include fatigue, increased thirst, dry mouth and frequent urination. Some people may notice blurry vision or other visual changes. Because high blood sugar can affect the immune system, people may have recurrent infections, such as yeast infections, or wounds that don’t heal as quickly as they used to.
“Over time, the high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can lead to serious complications, including loss of vision, kidney disease, nerve damage, increased infection and poor circulation that may lead to loss of limbs,” says Dr. Harris. “Diabetes can also raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia.”
Different types of diabetes have different causes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the body creates antibodies that prevent the pancreas from producing insulin. People with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to control their blood sugar levels.
People who have type 2 diabetes do produce insulin, but it doesn’t work well enough to properly manage blood sugar levels; this is called insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes is usually related to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of lifestyle-related conditions including high blood sugar, high blood pressure, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Diet is an important part of controlling blood glucose.
“What you eat and drink can directly affect your blood sugars. Processed and high-sugar foods like fruit juice or soda get absorbed very quickly and lead to rapid increases in your blood sugar,” explains Dr. Harris. “The pancreas responds by producing insulin, but over time it cannot keep up with demand, and blood sugar levels stay high.”
Dr. Harris recommends limiting heavily processed foods, such as crackers, cookies, frozen dinners and packaged foods that have a long shelf life. Instead, focus on eating whole foods as much as possible, including plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Whole foods also tend to have more fiber than processed foods, so they take longer to digest and enter the bloodstream more slowly, which can help prevent blood sugar spikes.
“If somebody is eating a typical American diet that's high in carbohydrates, my first recommendation is usually to eliminate beverages that have sugar,” says Dr. Harris. “They are unnecessary calories that drive up blood sugar and insulin levels, and they can be easily replaced by other beverages that aren’t sweetened with sugar.”
In addition, minimizing processed foods, exercising most days and maintaining a healthy weight can all help with diabetes management. Dr. Harris encourages people to partner with a physician who has experience treating diabetes and can help you set and achieve goals specific to your diabetes care.
“With good care and control, you can avoid most of the complications of diabetes,” says Dr. Harris. “The majority of people with diabetes do not go on to develop kidney failure and blindness. It just requires some care and close work with your health care provider.”